The first ever Tourism Policy of Punjab has officially been approved by the Cabinet and is expected to be launched this month in the thriving, much-celebrated and historic city of Lahore. This long-awaited initiative has been a monumental step towards addressing roadblocks within Punjab’s tourism sector and executing sustainable, international best practices to strengthen the very foundations of the sector. Punjab Government declared Tourism to be its priority and taken decisive measures to prove this commitment, from the ground-breaking of Kartarpur Corridor, to the relentless preparations for Baba Guru Nanak’s 550th Birth Anniversary, despite rising tensions with India. The inauguration of the Tourism Policy not only cements this commitment but also calls for lasting change and prosperity in Punjab.

Punjab’s enormous potential for tourism and economic growth is no secret. It is home to myriad landscapes, wetlands, cultural festivals, religious heritage monuments, cuisines and archaeological assets.

Tourism Policy of Punjab not only addresses the challenges to tourism sector head-on but also outlines innovative ways to overcome them

 Its topography is dotted with numerous sites, both natural and man-made, including three UNESCO-recognized World Heritage sites   Rohtas Fort in Jhelum, Lahore Fort and Shalimar Gardens in Lahore, and Buddhist Civilization remains at Taxila near Rawalpindi. Besides the prominent Sufi footprint, Punjab’s immensely rich cultural tapestry has also been strongly influenced by the legacy of Sikhs, Hindus, and Christians. Over the years challenges such as lack of skilled human resource, poor institutional and physical infrastructure, lack of inter-departmental and inter-sectoral coordination, unstandardized products and services, ecological degradation of tourist destinations and lacklustre marketing and branding have prohibited and severely undermined growth of the tourism sector in Punjab.

The Tourism Policy not only addresses these challenges head-on but also outlines innovative ways to overcome them. Its broad contours are predicated on close cooperation among various sectors of the tourism industry; institutional capacity-building and regulation; diversification of tourism destinations; rigorous branding and marketing of existing as well as new sites; collection of baseline statistics in the region and the development of attractive tour packages.

However, policy formulation and inauguration is only the first step; the government must now ensure its effective implementation. This can be achieved through a variety of measures. Firstly, the government should review, analyze and strengthen capacity of existing organizational support from Youth Affairs, Sports, Archaeology and Tourism Department, Tourism Development Corporation of Punjab, Department of Tourism Services, and other allied provincial institutions, and encourage inter-provincial and inter-departmental harmony. The tourism department in particular should assume responsibility to ensure systematic diagnosis of existing tourism value chain in the region. This should include tourism products analysis, tourism and public infrastructure analysis, policy and regulations, private sector role and investment constraints, workforce analysis, marketing and community engagement. Once concerted efforts have been made to build institutional capacity of these departments, rapid strides could be made towards growth of tourism as an industry.

Moreover, the role of the private sector cannot be overlooked; tourism industry cannot flourish without active participation of the private sector.

 For effective policy implementation it is vital that the government encourages and involves investment both locally as well as internationally through incentive packages and barriers reduction.

It should mobilize private-sector entities to ensure competition, diversification and innovation of products and services within the tourism sector.

Private sector investment and facilitation can also have a profound impact on local marginalized communities at the sites, in terms of awareness, mobilization, inclusion in decision-making, employment, revenue generation as well as promotion of cottage industries and local products.

Additionally, at the international level, the government should attract high-income Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist international tourists since the province is home to ancient Sikh Gurdwaras, Hindu and Buddhist temples and Shrines. Such traction could be achieved by relaxing visa-regime and portraying a softer image of Pakistan to generate opportunities for investment in hotels, restaurants and infrastructure.

Other key interventions should include training and capacity building of service providers such as tour operator and guides, travel agents, hoteliers. This can be done in collaboration with hospitality management and training institutions. MoUs and partnerships may also be established with local as well as international bodies well-versed in tourism-related activities.

As Punjab seeks to build its status as a top-contender of tourist destinations in the world, it is important that the Tourism Policy not only be followed in theory but also in spirit. To sum up, the government must ensure that Punjab is a safe, accessible and attractive destination for both domestic and international tourists.

(The author is a development practitioner with MSc Development Economics from SOAS and presently working as Deputy Project Director, Punjab Tourism For Economic Growth Project)